Saturday, 23 March 2019

On the Uses and Abuses of 'Community'

For a long time, even before the "Zaklash", I was thinking about writing a post about the so-called "OSR Community" and my suspicions about that way of thinking about online groupings. But somebody has pre-empted me and so it seems like a good time to marshal my half-formed thoughts on the matter.

"Community" is a much-abused term in the English language. There are two nefarious ways in which it is used, both of them related.

The first is when somebody uses the word to speak about large groups of people in an abstract, monolithic way which does not remotely reflect the variety of viewpoints within them: thus you will hear people talking about "the Polish community", "communities in North Yorkshire", "the black community", the "trans community", "working-class communities", and so on and what those "communities" are purported to think. (The black community thinks [X], communities in North Yorkshire are opposed to [Y], working-class communities are worried about [Z], and so on: well, okay, which black people, which people in North Yorkshire, which working-class people, and are they all of the same mind?)

The second is when it is used by somebody who is setting him- or herself up as being an authoritative voice for speaking on behalf of a group that he or she belongs to - usually on the basis of nothing other than a trumped-up ego. Thus you will encounter people in the public sphere who like to say that they speak on behalf of the Polish community, the trans community, working-class communities, or whatever, without any sort of legitimate justification for doing so.

You saw both of the abuses of that poor benighted word during the "Zaklash" thing, I am sure. I don't think there's much to be gained from naming names, but if you were following the blogs, reddit and G+ during that time you will I am sure have noticed that the air was thick with hot air about what "our community thinks" (as though an amorphous grouping of tens of thousands of people can "think" any one thing) and also will have observed a large number of people coming out of the woodwork to set themselves up as community spokespeople ("Here I am to tell everybody what we all think").

This is all completely awful and stupid. Let's think about "community" seriously.

Where I live, there is a community. I know my neighbours in the eight or so houses that are within shouting distance. We're not great mates or anything, but we say "hello" to each other, take each other's bins out each Tuesday morning to be collected, and watch out for each other. Ian, an old gent who lives opposite, occasionally pops over to warn us that he's heard about a burglary in the next street over or whatever. Now and again we'll chat about politics - he used to be a local councilor. Another neighbour is a guitarist and sometimes we'll swap CDs (yes, some people still do this!). There's a frail old widow who we all keep an eye on and help with gardening and the like. It's nice: there is what I would call an appropriate, common-sense level of interaction - we know each other, we interact where it would be helpful, but none of use gives a fuck if we happen to share different views and nobody pries. What's even better is that we're all pretty different. There are old people, young families, and middle-aged unmarried couples, all with our varying perspectives on life, and that makes it actually interesting to chat to them. Life is more richly textured having them around.

What are the characteristics of this community? First, we're grouped together by accident. Nobody chose his or her neighbours. We're neighbours because we happen to live near each other. Second, we "commune" in the sense that we help one another when it is needed and are available to each other for those purposes. Third, we do not universally "think" anything or much care what each other thinks, certainly not when it comes to politics. And fourth, we didn't come together for a purpose - we are I suppose what Michael Oakeshott would have called a "civil association", meaning that we share a sense of loyalty to each other and to certain (unwritten) rules of conduct - like not spying on each other and not insulting each other and making sure to say "hello" - but have no specific goal or objective other than rubbing along.

One good thing about real communities like this is that we all actually know who each other is and can interact physically. What this means is that if somebody from outside (a local politician or policeman or whatever) did actually want to find out what we "think", we could get together and ask each other and come up with a consensus view. We're not reliant on bogus spokespersons claiming to know what we think and putting words in our mouths.

Another good thing about real communities like this is that you don't get anonymous outsiders coming and going and claiming to be part of "the community" one second before disappearing, or claiming to be part of "the community" and then trashing its social norms. The community is what it is. You can only join it or leave it with difficulty and with an act of serious commitment.

The other good thing about real communities like this is that you can engage in corrective behaviour to a certain extent. Got a noisy neighbour? You can have a chat with the neighbour on the other side, go and see the offender, and ask him to get back in line. If he does, no hard feelings. If he doesn't, he gets shunned until he does. You don't want to idealise this, of course. If a gang of crack dealers moved into a house nearby and started running all-night parties, an external force like the police would have to get involved. Similarly, one spouse might be physically abusing the other behind closed doors, unbeknownst to the rest of us. But to a significant extent the community is self-managing in a humane and forgiving way; somebody does something to push the tolerance of the rest of the group, and they get politely, gently brought back into compliance with the social norms.

Online "communities" lack most of these features and shouldn't be mistaken for the real thing. In particular, they shouldn't be seen as a substitute for being part of a real-world physical community - the kind of thing that makes your life richer through exposure to people from different age groups, backgrounds and walks of life, and which gives you a sense of having something useful to contribute (even if it's just taking the old widow's dog for a walk).

Even more importantly, they shouldn't be seen as having the consensual characteristics of the relatively small, physical, closed community that exists in a street or village square or whatever. No one person or even group of people can speak for an online community because nobody knows who is in that "community" or what they all think, and there is no way to accurately find out. I can ask my neighbours what they think and represent the diversity of their views to an outsider if required to do so. I cannot do the same for readers of this blog and I most certainly cannot do so for the so-called "community" surrounding the OSR. And if I ever do appear to be trying to do this, you are well within your rights to tell me to go fuck myself, because nobody appointed me to do it.

Gelatinous Cubes, Rust Monsters, and Purposive Constraint

A long-running theme on this blog has been the creativity that comes from constraint. Yesterday's post is clearly on an adjacent topic: something I'm going to call "purposive constraint".

It is hard to think of an interesting new monster in the abstract. That's what makes the Beholder (and probably mind flayers) so special. It's easy to think up "this with a this" monsters (a budgie with a crocodile's head; a crocodile with budgie wings) and it is easy to think up twists of folkloric ones (a vampire but it turns into a shark rather than a bat and lives at sea; a were-secretary bird) but it's difficult to come up with something new.

Unless you are creating a monster for a specific purpose - like, for example, causing problems for PCs exploring a dungeon. Then it becomes more straightforward: what are players really going to be scared of? A monster which can dissolve their armour and precious items - hence, the rust monster. A big blob that comes down the corridor and which you can't bypass or escape from - hence, the gelatinous cube. Something which can disguise itself as a treasure chest and then "get" you - hence, the mimic. Something which can conceal itself on a ceiling and then drop onto you from above - hence, the piercer.

There are a whole host of monsters like this - created for the specific purpose of causing difficulties for dungeoneers. You will be able to think of others (there are also lurkers, cloakers and ropers, off the top of my head).

Which is all to say, purpose can also be a constraint resulting in creative solutions.

Clearly, the game being called "Dungeons & Dragons", most "purposive constraint" relates to the purpose of making dungeon exploration difficult, but there's no reason why this should be the case. For a more social, diplomatic, cloak and dagger sort of game, purposive constraint might conspire to produce altogether different monsters - maybe a monster which eats lies, or one which causes the inability to remember faces, or which only hunts invisible things. For one involving a lot of wilderness travel, it might be a monster which causes debilitating slowness, or which warps the landscape so you end up trapped in a cyclical pattern, or which causes you to fear daylight. You get the picture.

One way of thinking up new monsters, by extension, is to begin with a purpose. What specifically do you want to make it difficult for the PCs to achieve, given what you expect in a particular campaign, or particular session? The rest may simply follow.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Behold The Winner (And Sui Generis Monsters)


I suppose in retrospect it was obvious, but the victor of the Product Identity Tournament of Champions was the Beholder. Mind Flayers were a very distant second.

For me the answer was Carrion Crawler, just because that monster is so bound up in my earliest memories of playing the game - the very first encounter in the very first session of D&D I played was with one, and ever since then I've found it hard not to think of a dungeon delve involving an encounter with a Carrion Crawler as the quintessence of the game.

But the case for the Beholder is compelling. As Jonathan Newell put it in the comments on the last entry, the thing that makes the Beholder so special is that it is sui generis - it is not based in folklore or myth, and nor is it a "this with a this". It is its own thing. There aren't many monsters you can say that about.

Oddly, though, D&D has managed to do that trick a few times - I can think of two other candidates (who weren't in the Tournament of Champions but should probably have been) for that sui generis descriptor: gelatinous cubes and rust monsters. To be able to come up with a monster that has no origin or real antecedents and which is at the same time iconic takes quite a bit of doing. That D&D designers have done it three times at least is a powerful imaginative achievement.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Product Identity Tournament of Champions

According to the d20 SRD, the things WotC considers to be absolutely sacrosanct in terms of product identity (reading between the lines) is basically the character creation process, the experience point table, and the following monsters:

Beholders, gauth, carrion crawlers, displacer beasts, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayers, slaads, umber hulks, and yuan-ti.

I can understand why. If I was going to draw up a list of monsters which are The Most D&Dish of All Time, I would probably come up with something like that list. (Except for the gauth.) You might want to throw owlbears and bulettes in there too, for old times' sake.

So those are the contenders. But who would win the Product Identity Tournament of Champions? In the olympics of D&D-ness, who would get gold? Which monster is definitively the most D&Dish of them all, and why?

You can vote in the comments, which I will keep hidden until the result is revealed tomorrow(ish) to avoid people influencing the way others vote.

And you're not allowed to say "dragons". Product identity monsters only.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Actually Existing D&D

During the Cold War, it became apparent in the Eastern Bloc that there wasn't exactly a perfect correspondence between the Marxist understanding of the socialist mode of production and what was happening in reality. People coined a phrase, "actually existing socialism", to describe the imperfect real-life version. Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear leftist academics discussing something which they call "actually existing neoliberalism", to distinguish the real-life governing ideology in the modern day UK, US, and so on from the theoretical ideas of the so-called neoliberals (Hayek, Buchanan, Friedman, etc.).

This is because - in case this needs pointing out to anybody - it turns out that ideology doesn't tend to translate very well into real-world politics. What Marxist thinkers like to call "praxis" (you can always spot post-68 Marxist analysis because it generally cloaks its insights in impenetrable jargon so that the working classes can't even be bothered to try to understand them) is actually very messy indeed, to put it mildly.

This is also why when you tend to get ideologues together in an argument, they start saying things like, "Yes, the Soviet Union was a failure, but real communism has never really been tried!" or "Yes, laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th century was a failure, but real free market capitalism has never really been tried!" (I bet there are neo-Nazis on the internet somewhere who will tell you that, yes, Hitler's Germany was a failure, but real Nazism has never really been tried.) The messiness of the real world always gives them an excuse: "Ah, but if only Trotsky had been in charge." (The free marketeer's version of this is, "Ah, if only the State hadn't crowded-out private charity.")

D&D isn't an ideology exactly, but there's a big difference between the game's idealised form - the rules - and "actually existing D&D" as it tends to get played at the table. This is true of every edition. Praxis ain't easy.

I think the best example, the paradigm case, of this is weapon speed factors in AD&D. Those things exist in the rules, all right. But they are not, in my experience or to my knowledge, part of actually existing D&D. A similar one is the damage type versus armour type table (I may be misremembering the title of the table; I don't have a DMG from 1st or 2nd edition to hand), which tells you the AC modifiers to apply for a piercing weapon versus chainmail, a slashing weapon versus studded leather, a bludgeoning weapon versus plate, etc.

It's not that those rules wouldn't be interesting or even beneficial in play. It's just that people don't use them. There's a gap between system and actual games, and weapon speed factors and damage types versus armour types don't make it across.

As with all these things, there is a continuum. On one extreme there are the rules which are not present at all in actually existing D&D, like damage type versus armour type. (Somebody will now pipe up in the comments and insist they use that table, I am sure.) Then there are those which are present in actually existing D&D, but not in most people's games - racial level limits in 2nd edition, for example, or the stat limits for women characters in 1st edition. Then there are those where there is more of a genuine mix: I bet the majority of people who still play B/X or Basic nowadays have probably switched to ascending AC, but it's still possible to find descending AC in actually existing D&D in reasonably large numbers. And on the other extreme there are the rules which are there in the books and which people actually put into effect generally speaking - like hit points, or the six core stats.

Some people would probably conclude that the more the rules contained in the core books differ from actually existing D&D - i.e., the more the main rules are ignored by the players - the worse the game design. I tend to disagree. The messiness of D&D is part of its charm. So what if I can't be bothered using weapon speed factors in practice? I like the fact that they are there, to remind me that things would be pretty dull if theory and reality mapped each other too nicely.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Teaching How to Build a World

Just when I thought I was out...an internet debate pulled me back in.

(This time, I mostly agree with Alexis - with the important caveat that a course on DMing at university is plainly ridiculous even in the context of the horrendously stupid and frivolous shite that people somehow manage to hoodwink their departments into allowing them to teach. If you really want me to explain why, I will do so in the comments.)

I want to use this as an opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of this recent post. The central thesis of that post, if you'll forgive me calling it that, was that all human activities need to be "taught" in some sense, but how this is best done depends on the activity. Some activities (martial arts, sport, learning to drive, learning to write) are best taught in an explanatory way - let's say, didactically - and others (philosophy, legal reasoning, creative writing) are best taught through demonstration and osmosis on the part of the student. Almost nothing is absolutely in one camp or the other - it's all on a spectrum, shades of grey, blah blah. (And, of course, solo practice, intuition, innate aptitude, and all sorts of other variables are crucial as well.) 

Let's take Alexis's example of world building. He's absolutely right - most existing advice on "how to build a world" is terrible to put it charitably. Just execrably bad, stupid, pointless and wrong, and generally written by ignoramuses whose sum total of applicable experience is that they know about Faerun and have read some high fantasy novels and thought about them for about five seconds flat. 

But the takeaway message from this is not that there just needs to be better such advice. It's that the entire exercise is fundamentally flawed, being based on a misunderstanding of how to "teach" worldbuilding. The people making these videos and blogposts are making the wrong assumption that worldbuilding is an activity toward the didactic, learning-to-drive end of the spectrum of teaching, when in actual fact it's much much more towards the demonstration/osmosis, legal reasoning and creative writing end of the spectrum.

Let me explain. I say this on the basis of Yoon-Suin, which I hope would persuade anybody reading this blog that, whatever that book's flaws, it at least demonstrates that I know more than the average about how to make an interesting campaign setting that avoids cliche and that people want to run games in. How did I "learn" how to make Yoon-Suin?

Was it watching videos on how to make a world? Was it reading blog posts about "how to make a cool campaign world"? Was it because anybody told me how to do it?

No. I had worldbuilding demonstrated to me. Partly this was from reading fantasy novels of the right kind - The Book of the New Sun, the Viriconium books and stories, Gormenghast, China Mieville's books, and so on. And partly it was from other RPG settings - chiefly Planescape and Darksun. And finally, partly it was from reading other people's examples within the "OSR" scene - Kevin Crawford's stuff and various others. I got it from watching others, not from being told what to do. It was osmosis. Not didactic teaching. 

That's not to say that "How To" posts like Rob Conley's old fantasy sandbox guide can't be useful. But go on over to that entry and take a look at it carefully: what makes it valuable is not the beginner checklist of 34 steps (which is at the "learning to drive" end of the spectrum) taken in the abstract, but the subsequent entries showing how Rob actually did it for his own example (which is the "philosophy" end of the spectrum). It's not, I reiterate, that there is any learned activity which is purely in one camp or the other. Everything is a mix. But almost everything in this DMing lark has a much bigger element of one than the other. 

And finally, I end on the obvious point which is that at the end of the day this is all a hobby. It is supposed to be enjoyable. Learning how to build a fantasy setting by reading The Book of the New Sun is, believe me, a heck of a lot better in that regard than this sort of thing.

Revisiting Warhammer/40k: Small Armies and the Implied Setting

It's well-known and obvious to even the youngest player of Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 that there's something fishy going on with the sizes of the armies and the way conflict is described in the fluff: you're supposed to be playing a game of epic war on which the fates of civilisations rest, but the battles themselves are fought out between armies usually of at most 100 models on either side.

There's no point blaming GW for this - after all, there are only so many models you can reasonably fit on a table, and while hardcore wargamers are happy playing games like Advanced Squad Leader where the battles can be billed as just minor skirmishes, that's not really a way to win friends and influence people outside of that extremely narrow circle.

So, I get it. It's more fun to imagine you're taking part in epic war than to imagine you're fighting out ultimately not-very-important skirmishes. But I'm interested in the gap between fictional expectation and gaming reality nonetheless.

Imagine if you just had the bare rules for Warhammer or 40k and the models, but none of the fluff. What would you assume about the setting? What would be implied?

In the case of Warhammer, it's clearly an extreme version of the Dark Ages or something like it - a "points of light" sort of a setting in which no single political entity can summon up more than a few hundred armed men to fight in a war at any time. It might be because of the collapse of a mighty empire as in the fall of Rome - a land a bit like the one described in Pendragon, with lots of petty kings squabbling over very small areas of land. Or it might be because of something more fantastical than that; maybe the internecine fighting between all these different races present among the minis has ground down population levels to such an extent that the survivors are living almost in a post-apocalyptic environment on the brink of total extinction. Or maybe it's a fantasy world that has been hit by a meteor, or devastated by a War of the Magi, or riven by disease or a magical curse - a dying earth. You get the point, anyway.

In the case of 40k, we have the strangeness of what is clearly very hi-tech armies fighting from extremely small population bases. What does that imply? It could simply be a matter of resources. Maybe the galaxy is full of lots of habitable worlds, but they lack the resources to support much in the way of population. Most can only bear a population of a few thousand. As a result, wars are only fought between comparatively tiny armies.

Maybe it's distance. Maybe it just takes so long for people to spread across interstellar space that concentrating large forces in one area is logistically impossible. Maybe this makes for a civilisation that is united only by tenuous communications and where the small groups of people are inbred, isolated, and divergent in language, culture and religion - but perhaps able to unite around a few shared artefacts and motifs.

Maybe the galaxy is ending a la Guardian ("dying universe" rather than dying earth) and there is almost nobody left, but those who are left occupy an increasingly small space and that's why they spend so much time trying to kill each other.

Or maybe in the future war has become ritualised and ceremonial, fought on agreed principles and in a deliberately equalised way, so that disputes can be resolved through controlled violence - perhaps under the supervision of gods of war or referees. There's no need for the wastage of total war when conflict itself can be more like a sport - albeit one that still satisfies the spectators with a bit of blood and guts and meltaguns.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The Gate of Ivrel Prologue and Map Test

I have just recently finished reading The Gate of Ivrel, a vaguely obscure (although apparently relatively high-selling) sword-and-planet novel by CJ Cherryh. I very much enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed it more because I deliberately - and this is the first time I've ever done this - did not look at the map on the first page or read the lengthy prologue before reading the actual story.

I have no concrete evidence for this, but I suspect often fantasy/SF authors are forced to write prologues by their publishers, who are worried that without Basil Exposition to come along and explain things beforehand, the readers won't be able to follow what's going on. (This is obviously more of a problem with films, where the anxiety that audiences are stupid and won't understand anything reaches fever pitch - think of the incredibly naff and unnecessary introductory segment to Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring.)

I have even less evidence for saying this, but I strongly suspect this is the case with Gate of Ivrel. CJ Cherryh is a good writer with good taste, and the story stands on its own merits without its accompanying map or prologue, and you can piece together the background easily enough if you have half a brain. This is also of course much more enjoyable and interesting than having the information dumped on you at the start.

I'm going to take this approach to all fantasy novels I read in future, and I suggest you do too. I will also suggest that we call this The Gate of Ivrel Prologue and Map Test. If a book has a prologue and map and the story itself can be read, enjoyed and understood without that prologue or map, it fails the test - the publisher misjudged the audience and should be ashamed for it. If it has a prologue and map and genuinely needs them because you can't actually understand or enjoy the story without them, it passes.

Whether you would actually want to read a book that passes the test is a question I'll leave to the philosophers.

Not Really for Kids But Really Appealing to Kids

When I was a kid - let's say, probably aged around 7-11 or so - I used to get a huge thrill from certain visual artefacts (album covers, comics, book covers, and so on) that I thought were definitely Not For Kids My Age. Not because of sexual content, because at that age like most boys my view of girls could be accurately summarised as "Urghhhh". But because they managed to combine two things: they were obviously for teenagers or grown-ups, but at the same time they still had great appeal to the imaginative child. For a kid of my age in those days, most of the things that grown-ups seemed to be interested in (like Bullseye, Radio 4, Woody Allen films, Penguin paperbacks, newspapers, art galleries, the 10 o'clock news, Inspector Morse, etc.) were unutterably, unfathomably boring. But there were certain things that somehow weren't: they were definitely for people who were older than I was - maybe not definitely adults but at least teenagers - yet at the same time my childish brain could understand their appeal almost viscerally.

I'm talking about:







Is there a word to describe this quality - of being Not Really For Kids But Really Appealing To Kids? I don't think so. NRFKBRATK doesn't quite have the right ring to it, somehow.

Whatever you call it, this quality is responsible for a lot. I think part of the reason why I still like fantasy and SF so much is that I'm still able to look at that cover of Gate of Ivrel or Kieth Parkinson's Rifts piece and remember the excitement of seeing that kind of thing aged 9 and knowing that I was possibly a bit too young for it but didn't care. It's probably in fact precisely the feeling that caused me to start picking up Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf books in my local library at that age and never being quite the same person since.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The Beginner's Colloquial Orcish

I have been meaning to write various posts to do with structuralism, post-structuralism and language for quite some time, but haven't quite got round to any of them yet. They're brewing. But in that vein, a word about fantasy languages generally.

People in the Anglo-Saxon world tend not to learn other languages, and if they do, it's usually French or Spanish. This gives them a very skewed and narrow perception of the relationship between objective reality, "meaning", language and thought.

Let me give an illustration. In English, we distinguish between different circumstances in which the subject gets the object to do something. "The postman let the dog go for a walk" is different from "The postman made the dog go for a walk", which is different again from "The postman had the dog go for a walk", which is different again from "The postman got the dog to go for a walk". The distinction between "letting" and "making" is obvious. The differences between "having" and "getting" a little less so, but there are nuances of usage - if I "have you" read something, it has the connotation that I'm in charge, whereas if I "get you" to read something, it has more a connotation of persuasion.

In Japanese, there is no difference between any of these things. The sentence "The postman let the dog go for a walk" and "the postman made the dog go for a walk" (or "the postman had the dog go for a walk" or whatever) is exactly the same: 郵便配達員が犬を散歩させた. It's all in how you conjugate the verb, and the conjugation takes the same form for all those different situations set out above, in which English carefully discriminates.

Native English speakers find this odd: how do Japanese people tell the difference between "making" somebody do something and "letting" them do it? One answer would be, they get it from context. (And you can make it clear with judicious use of an adjective here or there.) But that doesn't actually capture the fact that the two languages are doing something fundamentally different. English distinguishes rigorously between the concepts of "letting" and "making"; Japanese doesn't. So, saying that Japanese speakers "get the difference from context" is a very English-speaker way of thinking about things: in Japanese there actually isn't a difference. This is not because Japanese people can't understand the difference between "letting" as in allowing and "making" as in forcing, but because the Japanese concept which is translated into English as "letting" or "making" means neither of those things. It means its own thing which is roughly approximate to both English "letting" and "making".

This is why people who are fluent in more than one language will often tell you that they actually think differently - and even have different personalities - when switching from one language to another. It's because a language is actually a structure which mediates between reality and abstract thought, and there is no direct connection or way for thought to interface with reality other than through it (I snuck a bit of post-structuralism in there after all).

Be that as it may, what would it mean to learn an orcish, elf, or dwarfish language?

An orcish language that exists as "ug" means "me", "bork" means "you", "ufufu" means "tree" has zero interest except perhaps something to pass the time. What's more interesting is reflecting on how playing around with concepts could pave the way to thinking about monsters in new and creative ways.

One simple way of doing this is merging concepts. What if, for example, in orcish, there's no distinction between "causing happiness" and "causing sorrow" - they're the same word, roughly meaning to "cause a strong reaction"? If that were the case, how would a human being communicate to an orc that being tortured causes a different experience to, say, sexual pleasure? To the orc, causing intense pain and pleasure are identical - or, to put it another way, to the orc, neither of those concepts exists as distinct from the other.

What if in dwarfish there's no distinction between avarice and prudence? What if in elven there's no distinction between nature and the self? What if for gnomes there's no distinction between gift-giving and theft?

As is often the case, these things can seem spurious at first glance but get interesting if you take the connotations seriously and extrapolate from the initial premise. What it? What then?